Bob Freedman is a composer, arranger, pianist and reed player. In the early 1950s, he played alto sax with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy's big band in Boston, writing a good chunk of the orchestra's arrangements. Since 1960, Bob has arranged for more than 30 jazz and pop stars, including Ron Carter, Billy Joel, Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan. He also has written for television and the movies. On the bling side, Bob shares a Grammy Award with Quincy Jones for The Wiz (1978) and has been nominated for three more.
But back in 1957, Bob wrote an arrangement for Maynard Ferguson that to this day knocks out fans of the trumpeter. The song is And We Listened, and it remains a superlative example of late 1950s high-energy big-band writing. What's more, the arrangement was recorded by Ferguson on one of his most celebrated albums of his fabled Roulette Records period—A Message From Newport (1958). Bob's swaggering arrangement sizzles with metallic zest, reverberating with the impact of the horn section's cannon fire and drummer Jake Hanna's shoving beat.
Yesterday I spoke to Bob, 75, about Boston jazz, Chet Baker and his arrangement for Ferguson:
Bob Freedman: We lived in Wollaston, Mass., until I was 12 years old. Then we moved to Cranston, R.I., where we remained. My father and sister played piano, which captured my interest. In the late 1940s, I'd turn on the radio and there were great big band jazz recordings on all day. It was a magical time. The song that excited me most was Dennis Farnon’s 1949 arrangement for Charlie Barnet of All the Things You Are, with Maynard Ferguson on trumpet.
JW: How excited were you?
BF: I flipped. I ran into Providence, which was close by to where we lived, and bought the 78-rpm record. I’m glad I did. Soon after, the estate of Jerome Kern, the song's composer, had it removed from record stores and banned from the radio. They hated the interpretation, so the record soon after I bought it was impossible to find.
JW: You played piano. When did you add the saxophone?
BF: Actually, it was the clarinet first. When I was 12 years old, I wanted to play the guitar. But my father didn’t approve. Then I wanted to play the trombone. He didn’t care for that idea either. Somehow the clarinet came up, and my dad was willing to buy me one. I played in the high school band. We had a terrific music director.
JW: So you played both instruments?
BF: From an early age, I had talent and intellect and good ears. I had been playing piano and clarinet with the school band, and when I was 13 I bought a book called Glenn Miller's Method for Orchestral Arranging. There were instructions for writing along with two or three scores of songs Miller had recorded. So I’d read the scores and listen to the records. That's how I learned the fundamentals of arranging.
JW: When was your first professional job?
BF: When I was 14, I played with Tommy Reynolds, a minor league Artie Shaw who led a territory band based in Providence, R.I. I got to play the baritone, alto and clarinet chair in that band. We also went out on the road locally. On breaks, I’d write out eight bars or so of music and the guys would play them so I could hear what I was doing right and wrong. That was some education.
JW: What about after high school?
BF: In 1951, I joined the Army. I was 17 years old. I didn’t care much for high school. My grades weren’t great and I wanted a change. My parents were fine with my decision. After basic training, I was sent to Fort Huachuca at the very bottom of Arizona. The Army band was made up mostly of misfits.
JW: Was the band any good?
BF: It turned out to be a really nice band. Soon after I arrived, Chet Baker was sent there. He was a misfit of sorts, too. He was a beautiful guy. He was a sweet, happy person who wanted to play. He was all about the music. We’d drive around various parts of southern Arizona looking for jam sessions. I got taken along because I was the only jazz piano player in the area. I knew the tunes and was a good comper [filling in with chords behind players].
JW: How did the audiences react?
BF: Chet struck everyone as exceptional. I didn’t understand the reaction at first. People were transfixed. It was his looks and music. It was the whole package.
JW: What made his sound special?
BF: At the time, he didn’t sound like anyone else. The lines he played were so simple and pretty. He’d do manipulations of notes in chords that a whole lot of people weren’t doing in those days.
JW: What was the net result from a musician's standpoint?
BF: The impression he left was that naturalness is a good thing. There was never a sense of imitation. He just let it happen and wasn't out to manufacture a product. When we’d go into clubs, he’d sometimes just stop playing for eight measures or so. He'd have his trumpet to his lips. Then, when he had an idea, he'd play a few notes and develop something great. The lesson was you don't have to play just to fill space. Things came so easily to Chet that he didn’t feel the need to push.
JW: What did you do after the service?
BF: In 1953 I returned to New England and played alto sax with Herb Pomeroy’s groups at The Stable in Boston. Herb was so beautifully generous. He’d rehearse anything I brought in. I eventually wrote 20% of the band’s book. We played two nights a week, and the place was always packed. [Pictured: Bob Freedman in the early 1950s]
JW: How did you come to arrange And We Listened for Maynard Ferguson?
BF: In 1957 Maynard Ferguson brought his band to Boston's Storyville, which was across the street from The Stable. Carmen Leggio, a saxophonist in Maynard’s band, had some emergency and couldn’t make the early days of the week-long gig. I got the call and took his chair for a couple of nights. They wanted me to play alto but everything in Carmen’s book was for the tenor sax [laughs]. So I had to transpose his parts as I played them, since the alto and tenor read different notes to produce results in the same key.
JW: How did you do?
BF: Very well. Maynard used to stand on stage just off to the side of Carmen’s stand, so he could hear me loud and clear. In the ensemble pieces, he was a foot away from me. He smiled at me so I knew he was happy with what I was playing. Actually, I knew things were going well when alto saxophonist Jimmy Ford hit me with his signature phrase: “Hey man, got any reeds?” [laughs]
JW: How did arranging come up?
BF: On one of the nights, during a break, I asked Maynard if I could arrange a chart for the band. He said sure. He told me, “I don’t like solos running into each other. I like a solo to be followed by the band before another solo starts. And I like things to build.”
JW: So what did you do?
BF: I wrote And We Listened. It took me about four days. But before I sent it off to Maynard [pictured], I had Herb Pomeroy’s big band run it down during afternoon rehearsals at The Stable. I wanted to hear the chart in case I needed to make changes. But it sounded perfect. Fortunately Herb had trumpeter Lennie Johnson in the band. Lennie could play Maynard’s part and hit the high Gs and more. When I heard Herb run it down, I was excited.
JW: How did you come up with the song's title?
BF: The title came from my fondness for Gerry Mulligan’s writing, in particular his use of the minor-7, flat-5 chord. That's the first chord I used in my arrangement. I was trying to write something that reflected the West Coast thing that was going on then. My original title was And We Listened to Him, referring to Gerry. But in truth, the title was also a tribute to Bill Holman, who is still my idol, Lennie Niehaus, and a few of the other great writers out there.
JW: How did the title get shortened?
BF: It must have been trimmed by the record company so it would fit on the album. Or maybe they didn't get the "to him" part and felt it wasn't necessary. I don't know.
JW: How fast was the original tempo?
BF: Quite a bit faster than the one Maynard used on A Message From Newport. Herb had played it down the way I had written it.
JW: How did it wind up so much slower?
BF: I heard later from Maynard's drummer Jake Hanna that in the Roulette studio, the band needed one more tune to complete the album. There was a 10-minute gap on the record. So Maynard pulled out my chart and said, “Let’s run this down.” They played it once, apparently even faster than the tempo Herb had rehearsed it. Jake, who had been at Herb's rehearsal, shouted out to Maynard, “It’s actually supposed to be slower than that.”
JW: What did Maynard do?
BF: With a 10 minutes hole on the date, he decided to slow the tempo way down. The result is what you hear on the album. I think it’s much more dramatic and powerful the way he recorded it. The build is much stronger. Trumpeter Bill Berry [pictured] told me that the brass section in the band used to hate playing it because they’d be totally beat at the end [laughs].
JW: When did you first hear that Ferguson had recorded your composition and arrangement?
BF: When I saw an ad for the record in a magazine. After I bought the record and played it. I was thrilled to death. That was the first time I had had anything recorded by a name band.
JW: Did you write additional arrangements for the band?
BF: I sent Maynard another chart called Thus Spake Jake, which showcased drummer Jake Hanna. But the band never recorded it. I have no idea why or what happened to the chart. I never made a copy.
JW: Did you feel badly?
BF: Things like that cross your mind and you wonder why things didn't work out. But Maynard was surrounded by great arrangers in that band. There was never a shortage of material [laughs]. That's just the way it goes and you move on.
JW: Does the result on Message sound as perfect to you as it does to most fans?
BF: Yes, absolutely. Actually, there’s a very small flaw in Carmen Leggio’s part right at the beginning. He plays a note that I didn't write. I can hear him start to play the wrong note and slide into the right one. I had written the part for the alto sax and since he played tenor, he had to transpose his part. I guess I had gotten him back for the same problem he left me with when I played his chair at The Stable [laughs].
JW: Why didn’t Pomeroy buy the arrangement?
BF: [Laughs] Herb [pictured] wasn’t buying anything in those days. That band played for love. We never assumed there would be any money for the arrangements we wrote. I was always aware of how fortunate I was playing with those guys. I don’t think anyone thought it was a job. With Herb’s band, Sunday morning rehearsals in the basement of the Schillinger House of Music building were mandatory. If you weren’t there, you were out of the band.
JW: Are you still impressed with the result on A Message From Newport?
BF: Oh sure. But you have to give praise to that band. The track you hear was only the second time they had ever played the piece. You can hear the hunger and energy in the instruments. That’s how it was then. Everyone was working hard and playing hard and hustling.
JW: What did you receive for the arrangement?
BF: I think I received a check for $75 when A Message From Newport came out. I don't think there were any additional royalty checks [laughs]. It was about the love. Just hearing what I had written played by that band was enough for me.
JazzWax tracks: Bob Freedman's And We Listened is on A Message From Newport. The track has a light strip-time beat that builds to a series of supersonic solos by Maynard Ferguson and driving drum lines by Jake Hanna. The CD is long out of print and is going for about $50 here. The CD and LP turn up at eBay from time to time and may be available as a download at online sites. It also appears on the long out-of-print The Complete Roulette Records of the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra (Mosaic), one of the most highly sought-after and high-priced box CD sets on eBay. Someone out there should re-issue Maynard Ferguson's superior Roulette recordings. Anyone?